John Isner's career, so far anyway, is defined by what he's done in five-set matches.
Mainly, of course, the all-sorts-of-records-breaking 70-68 win at Wimbledon in 2010. He's also the only man to push seven-time champion Rafael Nadal the distance at the French Open, in 2011's first round. And Isner's 18-16 loss at Roland Garros a year ago was part of a rough Grand Slam slate: He was beaten in a fifth set at all four major tournaments.
That last part was why the 19th-seeded Isner pumped his right fist, clapped and flashed a thumbs-up Friday, so thrilled to end his six-match losing streak in five-setters by coming back to beat Ryan Harrison 5-7, 6-7 (7), 6-3, 6-1, 8-6 in all-American matchup in the French Open's second round.
"I played well in 2012, but that really was a tough pill to swallow for me, to lose in five sets at every single Slam," said the 6-foot-9 Isner, who missed the Australian Open this January with an injured right knee. "This one helps, and I really do think it will help me going forward, because, you know, certainly will be probably in some more five-set matches."
Seems safe to say.
This also was the first time in Isner's career he won a match after dropping the first two sets.
"What I did exceptionally well — more than serving, my forehand, everything else — was I just stayed composed," Isner said after improving to 5-11 in five-set matches, "and just told myself, 'If I'm going to lose, I'm going to want him to beat me, and not beat myself.'"
There were moments against the 92nd-ranked Harrison that could have been discouraging, to be sure. There were those first two sets, for example. Isner, who is based in Tampa, Fla., got broken the sixth time he served, enough to put Harrison up 6-5 and take the first set. Isner then held a set point ahead 7-6 in the tiebreaker, but dropped the next three points.
"I started out a little — I don't know if the word is 'tight,' but I had three days off and I didn't start out that well," Isner said. "It was slow, the conditions. A bit sleepy out there, I felt like."
Rain Thursday postponed their match a day.
Nothing might have been more confounding for Isner than what happened with Harrison serving at 5-all in the fifth, a 13-minute game with five break points. Convert any, and Isner would serve for the match, but he couldn't.
"I really would have liked to have played a bit better on those points, but he came up with the goods," Isner said. "I was knocking on the door pretty much the whole fifth set."
"I saved about a million break points," he said.
At 6-all, though, with the match more than 3½ hours old, Harrison faltered, sailing a forehand long to make it 15-40, then double-faulting for the ninth time a point later, allowing Isner to serve it out.
After that first-set break, Isner held 21 times in a row.
"You think of one thing when you think of John Isner, and that's 'huge serve.' Doesn't matter if you play on any surface. If he serves well, he's going to give himself a chance to win," Harrison said.
The 20-year-old Harrison, who lives in Bradenton, Fla., tried not to be distracted by the miniature airplane that traveled along an overhead zipline toting a camera (because of an airline's sponsorship deal with the tournament, naturally).
He fell to 0-4 in his five-set career, and has yet to make it past the second round in 12 Grand Slam appearances. This was his ninth loss in a row at a major tournament against a seeded opponent.
"Whenever ... you're starting to feel like you're on top, it's not a time to hit cruise control," Harrison said about letting his two-set lead vanish. "It's a time that you hit the gas pedal and try to bury them."
The last time a pair of U.S. men faced each other in the second round in Paris was 2001, when Andy Roddick beat Michael Chang.
Last year, when Isner was seeded 10th and lost to a Frenchman ranked outside the top 250 in 5 hours, 41 minutes — the second-longest match, by time, in tournament history — zero American men made the third round for the first time since 2007.
This year, Isner is the last man from his country left, because 18th-seeded Sam Querrey lost his third-round match Friday, letting a lead slip away in his own five-setter against No. 15 Gilles Simon of France, 2-6, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (2), 6-2.
Next for Isner is a match Saturday against No. 12 Tommy Haas of Germany, a 35-year-old who beat 20-year-old American qualifier Jack Sock 7-6 (3), 6-2, 7-5. Haas is the oldest man ranked in the top 100 — and the oldest in the third round at Roland Garros since Jonas Bjorkman, also 35, did it in 2007.
"Doesn't seem like he's 35. He moves well; he's in great shape; hits the ball well," Sock said. "If you're a random spectator watching the match, you would not guess that he's 35."
Haas is a four-time Grand Slam semifinalist, although he's never been past the fourth round at Roland Garros.
Isner, who is 28, called Haas "a remarkable story" and added: "I hope I could be that good at 35."
Sock was asked whether his youth gave him any sort of physical edge against Haas.
"It's pretty obvious he's fit enough. He's shown it throughout the year. He seemed all right to me," Sock said. "I mean, I guess you'll see, if he goes five sets."
When Isner is involved, that's a distinct possibility.
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